I hate nationalism. Nationalism is one of the biggest causes of violence, misunderstanding and lack of respect that simply makes the world worse to live in. It’s also one of the biggest threats to globalisation because it divides us into groups that are based on, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, a common misunderstanding of one’s history and a common antipathy toward one’s neighbours. I’ve heard arguments that it is nationalism that helps an economy grow or that national affiliation is an important part of one’s identity but I don’t believe those things for a second. This post is about nationalism in Europe.
Nationalism in Europe takes various forms. The most rabid nationalism, of neo nazis, for example, is confined to the fringes of society. But others are widely accepted and not recognised for the problems they cause. For instance, many people are keen not to let too many foreign businesses into their countries because they think that domestic firms won’t keep up. But not only does foreign direct investment bring money, jobs, technology and education, it also tends to force domestic firms to work harder to stay afloat, leading to an improvement in standards of products and services across the whole economy. The firms that are facing new competition don’t have to go bankrupt, they simply work harder to please. Much of this economic nationalism is hypocrisy anyway because the same people have no concerns about letting firms from their country expand everywhere else.
Where does nationalism come from? It comes from the stories we tell each other. The first party I accuse is the history teachers. History class tells us what happened in the past. It leaves no room for critical inquiry: “what happened in that war?” “We won.” “Why did we win?” “Because we were the bravest and best fighters.” And then they link history to today: “it’s part of our culture”. Perhaps things didn’t really happen that way. Have you considered that? The second guilty party is politicians. Their loyalties are to their electorates only so they build up the egoes of their people and do everything they can to impress them. They create enemies and scapegoats and the people really believe them. Which is why the third guilty party is the rest of us. We assume that these people, the books we read, the newspapers, and everything else, are true because we haven’t learned to think critically about them, so we tell and retell each other stories to reinforce them and exaggerate them. Our soldiers get braver, our leaders get smarter and our culture gets better with every story.
There are several features of European nationalism I will point out. One is an adherence to tradition. Traditions include holidays and what you do on holidays. They often originate from religion, depending how religious a culture sees itself. I agree with Hobsbawm that traditions are purposely created by elites to justify the existence and the importance of their nation states. I also agree with Thomas Friedman, who said that societies that look to the past too much get stuck in a “things were better back then” mentality and want to revert to the past rather than evolve for the future.
The second feature is an “us and them” mindset. Most Europeans use collective pronouns when they discuss their countries. Someone from one country might say to someone from another “we gained our independence in 1991 and you gained it in 1992.” There is perhaps nothing inherently wrong with this (unless, like me, you believe that there is something inherently wrong with identity deriving from the nation state)–until you start mixing. Countries have more than one supposed cultural group in them, and with the Schengen agreement migration will increase and countries will mix cultures more and more. Nevertheless, people still tend to think that, if you are a Serb, Serbia is your country; if you are French, France is your country; and everyone else is only in your country because you allow them to be. Thinking this way leads to claims that we should be offered all the best jobs because this is our country. It’s not your country. It’s everyone’s world. Stop being so selfish.
The third feature is a feeling that things are simply better in one’s country than everywhere else. It makes sense to prefer your culture because you are used to it. But talk to most Europeans and they will tell you that the food is better in their country, the women are better looking, the music is better, our language is the most beautiful, our teams are the best at football, the schools are the best in this region of Europe, the beaches are nicer than anywhere else in the world and so on and so on. The idea that things are better in my country causes pride. But what are you proud of? Why are you proud of something you didn’t even help to create? These people, the athletes and singers you think are so wonderful, they have nothing to do with you. You are an individual. You don’t have to be a Croat or a Slovene or a German: just be yourself. Your identity puts up invisible but tangible barriers between you and others who are different from you. It damages the world by dividing it rather than uniting it in a common direction, which should be peace, freedom and prosperity. Don’t let your identity isolate you. Become a citizen of the world and let it free you.